How to Tell When Labor Begins

Labor is defined as having regular painful contractions that cause the cervix to change and dilate. Most women will experience contractions during pregnancy that are not labor. It is important to know when contractions are normal, when they are abnormal and when you should be seen to evaluate for contractions.

Palpating for Contractions

If you are unsure if the discomfort you are experiencing is contractions, you can try to palpate or feel for contractions on your stomach. Contractions may or may not be painful, but usually will last anywhere from 30-90 seconds. Start by placing your hand on your stomach. Although the uterus feels firm (especially where the baby’s body is), there should be areas that feel softer, like a water balloon. When a contraction starts, you can feel the uterus harden and tighten, just like when you flex a muscle in your arm or leg.

Timing Contractions

If you are concerned about contractions, you should first begin by timing contractions. Write down the time that the first contraction starts. Use a watch with a second hand to see how long the contraction lasts. Then write down the time the next contraction starts and again see how long the contraction lasts. Try to do this for at least 30-60 minutes.

Pre-term Contractions and Pre-term Labor

Pre-term contractions or labor are defined as contractions or labor that begin before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Many women with experience occasional contractions before 37 weeks as the uterus stretches and grows. Usually, contractions that are 15 minutes or more apart are not concerning. If you are experiencing mild contractions more than 15 minutes apart, you can try lying down or sitting, drinking a large glass of water or eating a snack or taking a nap. This will usually help to stop the contractions.

For women less than 34 weeks: if your contractions are getting closer together and stronger, or if you are experiencing painful contractions every 10 minutes or less, you should be evaluated.

For women between 34 and 37 weeks: if your experiencing painful contractions every 5 minutes, you should be evaluated.

"False" Labor & Braxton-Hicks Contractions

For women who are more than 37 weeks pregnant, labor can happen at anytime. Most women will deliver in the days around their due date. Some women will experience regular contractions that start and stop, which will help move the baby’s head down into the pelvis and soften the cervix before true labor begins. Other women will not experience many contractions until their true labor begins.

Braxton-Hicks contractions usually are not painful or mildly painful. Most women who are experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions can continue to perform activities like walking, cleaning or watching TV without too much distraction. Braxton-Hicks contractions are usually irregular, anywhere from 5-20 minutes apart. They will usually be improved by lying down, eating a snack or drinking water or taking a warm bath.

If you are more than 37 weeks pregnant and are experiencing contractions, you should begin timing the contractions. If the contractions are getting stronger and more painful and are less than 5-8 minutes apart for more than 2 hours, you should be evaluated.